The Patron Saint of the Undocumented is an Asian American


Flying into New York last week on a jet enabled for TV, it was a treat to watch democracy in action throughout the world. On one channel, Egypt was in full democratic eruption seeking a new modern future. On another channel was Arizona State Senator Ron Gould, advocating yet another backward step challenging the right of U.S. citizenship by place of birth.

All I could do was shake my head wondering why birthers like Gould hadn’t heard of Wong Kim Ark.

What’s a Wong Kim Ark?

It isn’t something a Chinese seaman and Kim Kardashian have secretly docked off Chelsea Piers.

It’s actually the name of the original Asian American civil rights superhero, as powerful as Brown (as in v. Board of Education). Though in the citizenship realm, Wong came to the rescue to protect an undocumented student’s right to a public school education, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a restrictive Texas law in 1982.

That’s what Wong Kim Ark does for you.

Born in San Francisco (like me) to Chinese immigrants around 1868 (not like me), Wong travelled between China and the U.S. several times as a young man in the 1890s. But when Wong came back from a trip in 1895, immigration officials had ramped up enforcement on the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese laborers from entry and re-entry to the U.S. The U.S.-born Wong claimed he was an American. The government detained him as a non-citizen.

The federal district court sided with Wong, ruling that the citizenship clause in the 14th amendment-first ratified in 1868 and used in part to assure the post-Civil War transition to freedom of African-born slaves-affirmed Wong’s right to U.S. citizenship.

But the U.S. appealed to the Supreme Court. Finally, in a 6-2 decision, the High Court held the 14th Amendment’s citizenship clause did apply to a child born in the U.S. to parents of Chinese descent, who at the time of birth had a home and residence in the U.S. and weren’t employed in any official capacity by China.

That’s the precedent, and Wong has been the example of jus soli (citizenship through place of birth), providing an important pillar to the 14th Amendment since March 28, 1898.

After 113 years, you’d think the whole thing could be filed under “settled.”

But amazingly, there are those who continue to breathe life into the issue, whether it be to challenge President Obama’s right to be president, or the right of the children of undocumented to claim their citizenship.

In the recent past, Louisiana and Georgia have been the birthplace of venomous challenges to restrict the rights of U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants. (Sometimes called anchor babies, they are not the love children of Brian Williams and Diane Sawyer).

But Arizona, the so-called meth lab of American democracy and home to SB1070, the law that gives the state the right to identify and prosecute the undocumented, seems to be at the forefront of the most wrong-headed and xenophobic pieces of anti-immigrant legislation. The latest bill would take away birthright citizenship to those born in the U.S. and create a two-tier system. If the bill passes, that state would have one tier for real citizens, and another tier for the children of non-citizens. Only in Arizona would it be possible to be an official second-class citizen.

Thankfully, I’m happy to say the bill died quietly in committee early this week. That and Hosni Mubarak is still on permanent vacation.

Democracy is safe for now. And Wong Kim Ark rests easy.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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